Caravaggio killed a man in a sword fight and went on the run wanted for murder. He himself died in mysterious circumstances on a beach near Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast as he headed back to Rome to beg for a pardon. Richard Dadd, painter of the ‘Fairy Fellers Master-stroke’ murdered his father and was committed to Bethlam for the rest of his life. Carl Andre was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife who fell from the 34th window of their apartment building but he was later acquitted. Tom Thompson, inspirational leader of the Group of Seven who painted the Canadian Wilderness, was murdered it is thought by an unknown assailant on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Canada.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery continues its series of small exhibitions of American painters with this the first exhibition in this country of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
The first decade of the 20th Century saw artists experiment with the physicality of paint and its expressive use of colour as a means to express emotion. Europe was the hub of the art world and students from every civilised country flocked to the ateliers of Paris and Antwerp to learn of the new developments and theories being formed in these great centres of creativity. Canadian artists were no exception and back at home they were eager to try out their new techniques and forge their own identities on what was the unique aspect of their country, the vast Canadian Wilderness.
Tom Thompson was the inspiration of the group. Originally a commercial artist he was inspired by the landscape of Algonquin Park and thrived on the hiking, climbing, camping and canoeing that was necessary to explore the areas and create the images that would define Canadian painting. On these trips he would paint small-scale sketches that fitted into his painting box and these would then be turned into larger paintings when he returned to Toronto. In the show there are his two best known paintings – The West Wind 1916/17 and ‘The Jack Pine ‘1916.
These pictures are as important to Canadians as a Constable picture is to the English and coincidentally or not, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is showing at the same time the RA’s sketch for ‘The Leaping Horse’ as part of their Masterpiece a Month Scheme. Both of Thompson’s pictures are large-scale strongly coloured works, which work well from a distance but lose out on the intimacy and direct response of the smaller rapid sketches and it is these small intimate works done directly from nature that are the stars of the show. His ‘Open Water, Joe Creek’ 1914 is a good example of this direct approach filled with the vitality of a first impression of the scene.
Other members of the group include Jim McDonald, Alec Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varly, Frank Carmichael and Lauren Harris. Inspired by Thomson’s example they also completed sketches on their painting trips and again it is these smaller scaled works that shine out in the Dulwich exhibition. Jim McDonald’s ‘October Shower Gleam ‘1920 and Alex Jackson’s ‘St Fidele’1930 shows this intensity of approach and the range of subject matter realised.
The group’s landscapes helped define the Canadian identity but of course they went on to work in different directions, some towards portraiture, others such as Lauren Harris (who was interested in Theosophy) towards the spiritual element in nature and through simplifying his shapes and colours. He eventually turned to abstraction after 1933. His art deco stylisation at times can be hard to take, but ‘Isolation Peak’ 1930 is a good example of what he could achieve.
In Arthur Lismer, the longest surviving member of the group, who originally came from Sheffield, I discovered a personal connection. One of his students Len Fligel, moved to Scotland and was the art teacher at the school I attended. The teachings of the group of seven were sympathetic to the Scottish colourist tradition. In Lismer’s ‘Evening Silhouette’ 1928, we see a good example of the elemental yet colourful depiction of the area around Georgian Bay.
Thompson disappeared on Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park in July 1917, his body discovered eight days later with fishing line tied around his leg and with a head injury. Speculation persists that a neighbour murdered him over a dispute. The body was hastily buried without an autopsy and two days later exhumed by his relatives for reburial. The mystery of what actually happened persists to this day.
Whatever the truth of the matter however, his paintings continue to inspire succeeding generations. The Canadian artist Emily Carr is a painter to look out for and if you have ever wonder where Peter Doig ‘s inspiration came from, perhaps we need look no further than his illustrious predecessors who helped define the National Identity of Canada – Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
James Cowan, OCA Art tutor